Postcapitalism debate #2: the second exchange between Yanis Varoufakis and Michael Albert

Michael Albert and Yanis Varoufakis, members of mέta’s Advisory Board, take part on an ongoing debate on how a postcapitalism worth striving for could look like. Here is their latest exchange; the whole discussion, to be constantly updated and enriched, is to be found here.

Michael Albert’s second response:

3. Equitable, Negotiated, Classless Self Management

Michael Albert, 8 December 2021

Yanis, you say our differences begin beyond our both rejecting capitalism, advocating a productive commons, favoring participation in planning, and seeking to replace the “coordinator class.” But do we agree that to end coordinator class rule we need to replace the corporate division of labor with jobs balanced for empowerment? Do we agree that we should all decide our lives up to where our choices impinge on others, but from there on, others should have their self-managing say, as well?

You express alarm that I use the words “equitable” and “negotiation.” You worry that these words may hide new forms of domination. But “equitable” means we receive income for how long, how hard, and the onerousness of the conditions under which we do socially useful work. Why would that alarm you? The only thing equitable remuneration has in common with market remuneration is that in each you get an income. But with markets you get what you have the bargaining power to take. With equitable remuneration, you get what you and your fellow workers decide accords with your duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued work.

And regarding “negotiation,” I assume you agree that any economy will and should involve people acting jointly with other people. Doesn’t it follow that in worthy postcapitalism, a worker won’t just do or get whatever they alone choose? Call what they do together exploration, conversation, or negotiation, what’s the alternative? One person or a small class decides? Competition decides?

You don’t want people telling you what to do. Okay, but people telling you what to do seems a strange way to characterize decisions that you participate in. In any event, do you think there could or should be a society where each person would decide their own remuneration, their own consumption, and their own work, with no concern for others?

You say you find suffocating ”the prospect of having to reach via negotiation a common understanding of what [you] must do and of what an equitable reward is for [you] to do it.” In participatory economics no one tells you what you must do and you are part of who decides what is an equitable reward. You are a participant in society, not atomistically aloof from it.

You have a job. Suppose your workers’ council, of which you a full member, decides when the work day starts. It sets council agendas, it determines the composition of balanced jobs, and it decides how to apportion income among its workers. Assume mutually agreed sensible deliberation plus self-managed decision making procedures. Would that be suffocating? To achieve “a degree of autonomy from the collective,” participatory economics makes diversity a prime value and emphasizes the need to respect and even preserve minority positions. But shouldn’t post capitalist division of labor, decision making, remuneration, and allocation deliver goods and services but also solidarity, diversity, equity, self management, and sustainability? We haven’t yet explored how all that can happen, but can we agree it needs to happen?

Yanis Varoufakis’ second response:

4. Flat management, democratic planning and a basic income

Yanis Varoufakis, 23rd December 2021

Portrait of Yanis Varoufakis. He is wearing a dark blue shirt and a black jacket. He is staring optimistically and smiling

Michael: Glad that we are proceeding slowly, refusing to take for granted vague terms like ‘equitable’ and ‘just’ – terms within which all manners of oppressions and irrationalities can take refuge. Before proceeding, and in the interests of full disclosure, let me state it for the record that, from a young age and to this day, I have signed up to Karl Marx’s dismissal of equity (as a bourgeois notion) as well as to his antipathy to defining freedom as the right to make free choices as long as they do not impinge on others.

So, when you ask me whether we agree “…that we should all decide our lives up to where our choices impinge on others, but from there on, others should have their self managing say, as well”, my response is: No, we certainly don’t. Interdependence is a given in any social network. Thus, according to your definition of freedom, every Tom and Dick has the right to scream that Harriet’s choices somehow impinge on theirs. Who will adjudicate then? Tom and Dick, merely because they are in the majority (or any majority for that matter)? That is unacceptable.

You ask me why I am alarmed by your definition of equitable: “…Equitable means we receive income for how long, how hard, and the onerousness of the conditions under which we do socially useful work.” The answer is because I shudder to imagine who will decide what constitutes ‘socially useful work’. What happens if Harriet wants desperately to work on some new project that Tom and Dick consider ‘socially useless’? Or who gets to quantify how hard or onerous a particular job is? The majority again? Just writing these words makes my throat choke with angst.

You ask: “Do we agree that to end coordinator class rule we need to replace the corporate division of labor with jobs balanced for empowerment?” Sure, we agree. But, who gets to decide the job balance necessary for Harriet’s empowerment? My answer is: Harriet. No one else. Not Tom and Dick. No worker council should tell Harriet what is good for her to do, let alone decide on her behalf. Sure, they can chat about it in the assembly, on the company’s intranet, via all sorts of teleconferences etc. But, unless Harriet gets to decide what Harriet does, it ain’t self-management.

Naturally, the question then becomes: How do things that need to get done get done? I have concrete ideas on how to answer this all-important question. But, in the spirit of taking this conversation slowly, I shall begin by setting down five basic principles that enterprises should adhere to:

Authentic self-management: Participants (i.e., worker-co-owners) must be free to join at will, or to quit, work teams within the enterprise – and to pursue projects without anyone’s permission

Democratic hiring & firing: A democratic process must determine who is brought into the enterprise, but also who is fired (Nb. The right of the collective to dismiss a participant as a necessary counter-balance of authentic self-determination)

A basic income for all: Without an adequate basic income, to fire a participant is to jeopardise her capacity to live. This would vest too much power in the hands of the majority (within the enterprise) while, at once, making it harder to fire someone that deserves to be fired.

Democratic resource allocation: The collective decides how much the basic salary is, how much to spend on infrastructure (including R&D), the enterprise’s multi-year plan and, lastly, how much to set aside for annual bonuses (to be distributed according to a democratically agreed process)

Your thoughts?

This is an ongoing debate between Michael Albert and Yanis Varoufakis: more entries will be added here soon.